Family Academy’s ‘cradle to career’ effort under way in north Minneapolis


Sitting cross-legged on the floor Saturday at Family Academy in the Northside Achievement Zone, six moms and their children sing a song that could signal a sea change for some north Minneapolis families.

It’s a simple ditty, a preschool tradition perhaps more common to wealthier areas of town, sung to the tune of “Frere Jacques.” Listen in: “I am special, I am special. Yes I am. There is no one like me……”

It’s a song for children, surely, but also a beginning step toward building a youngster’s self confidence and love of learning starting at the Mona H. Moede Neighborhood Early Learning Center in an area of Minneapolis where the racial achievement gap stretches wide.

Community Sketchbook focuses on the economic and social challenges facing communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, and how people are trying to address them.

It is made possible by support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation, and some Minneapolis Foundation donor advisors.

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Here among a dense concentration of poor African-American families, only 3 of 10 children finish high school and fewer yet go on to college.

The Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) and its Family Academy program are out to change that trajectory based on tons of academic research that shows early language and literacy development and positive-parenting techniques set the stage for a lifetime of successful learning for children.

And since NAZ, including its Family Academy, won support for its efforts last December by snagging a $28 million, five-year Promise Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Department of Education, we swooped in for a closer look.

“Though this grant is great, I want to remind us that the needs in the zone are even greater,” Northside Achievement Zone director Sondra Samuels told MinnPost at the time.

“This is not an easy fix. It is a long term fix,’’ says NAZ spokeswoman Katie Murphy talking about unstable housing, unemployment, unaddressed mental health problems and poor access to health care for those living in the area.

“All of these problems affected these families with the outcome being a high crime rate in this area,” Murphy says. The goal became trying to end multigenerational poverty through education.

More than 50 organizations

NAZ is a coordinated effort to close the achievement gap involving more than 50 organizations, including Minneapolis public, private and charter schools, early childhood education programs, families and neighborhood leaders.

It’s a “cradle to career” strategy aimed at seeing that every child born within an 18-by-13-square block area they call “the zone” on the city’s north side finishes high school college-ready, an approach modeled in part on the successful Harlem Children’s Zone program in New York City but also unique to these families in north Minneapolis.

Daily life for these parents and their kids is more likely to involve an encounter with violence than a trip to Whole Foods, explains Lauren Martin, who helped design the program.

Consequently, they need to know effective parenting strategies to deal with that, as well as generational poverty, she says.

“We start from where the parent is at, the context in their home life, their community. Then we bring research-based parenting strategies that we know will be the foundation for kindergarten readiness,’’ explains Martin, a PhD researcher with the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research Outreach-Engagement Center.

Preparing kids for school

Now, more than 30 percent of black children across Minneapolis enter kindergarten unprepared for the academics, according to the One Minneapolis Community Indicators Report issued last October. But Martin speculates the percentage is higher in the zone, an area bounded by Penn Avenue on the West, I-35 on the north, Third Street on the East and West Broadway on the south.

“Family Academy is giving parents the tools and information about child development to enhance their parenting skills and to help prepare their children for school,’’ explains Andre Dukes, family engagement leader for the program, and an assistant pastor at Shiloh Temple International Ministries nearby. He helped start NAZ’s predecessor, the PEACE Foundation, some years ago as a reaction to violence and youth deaths in north Minneapolis.

“We’re working hand in hand with families,” says Andre Dukes, parent educator for Family Academy.

This is about change, he says, “We’re working hand in hand with families.”

The Family Academy program was a pilot last year. So far it offers an eight-week parent empowerment course and a 13-week infant-toddler parent education class, involving 82 families.

With the new funding the goal is to scale up to 1,200 families and something like 3,000 children by 2014.

There are similarities to other such child and parent programs. “We start from the assumption that all parents want their kids to succeed,’’ says Martin, who then looked to the research to develop the curriculum.

Research shows language and literacy development and positive-parenting techniques help build the cognitive skills kids need for success in school and life, Martin says. “We know that children that have a larger vocabulary by age 3 are on an upward trajectory,’’ for instance, she says.

So Family Academy teaches parents strategies for getting kids talking and for encouraging language development by reading to their children, then helps families test the effectiveness of those strategies. Martin is also studying the program for effectiveness over three years.

But this program is specially tailored to these families, as well, she says, talking about five years of preparation. “They’ve been training us what it’s like to grow up in NAZ. We looked at the real life context of these families’ lives.’’

For these parents parenting is way more than heading off a child temper tantrum.

“Think about discipline. It is critical,’’ Martin says. “We know the context of gun violence in this community. A parent needs to know they have enough discipline to keep their kids safe. You can’t talk about discipline in a fluffy setting like Whole Foods where the child wants a bunch of grapes and the parent wants him to have an orange.’’

This program offers transportation to classes, a hot breakfast on Saturdays and provides more teachers of color and other staff who understand what it is like to grow up in generational poverty, she says.

Community ‘connectors’

NAZ offers support through “connectors,” community leaders like Jewelean Jackson who act as peer coaches and ombudsman to help parents. Says Jackson, “I know this will make a difference in these people’s lives.”

Right: Learning letters (Photo by Jillian Kahn)

Parent Lucretia Gill agrees. “They’ve been there sometimes when I need to be encouraged, someone to talk to, to find what I need. NAZ is like family now.’’ When the tornado touched down near her home last spring, NAZ connectors called her and offered help.

A single mom of four, she’s also a parenting-class graduate who has a two-year college degree and is ready to take a state proficiency exam to become an x-ray technician.

Ask her why she’s participating in NAZ and she says:

“I want [my kids] to get a really good education and go to college and help break the cycle we are in, help break the cycle of poverty, get the education, not dropping out…staying focused.’’

Now a parent liaison, does she feel she benefited from the parenting classes?

“Oh yeah,’’ she tells me. “I’m talking more to my kids, on how to deal with certain situations, helping them become better problem-solvers, and they’re talking to adults rather than just giving attitude.’’

As for right now, she’s sitting in that circle singing songs, playing with and then reading a book to her son Brian. He turned 4 this week.